Lowell Bergman Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The 'Long March through the Institution' of Television Journalism: Conversation with Lowell Bergman, Reporter/Producer and Professor at the UCB Graduate School of Journalism; 1/31/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Political and Social Theory

Marcuse was a German philosopher who had immigrated to the United States; was associated with a Frankfurt school, and then had been at Brandeis, and then was now at UC San Diego.

Well, Gerth, Mosse, Marcuse, all of these guys were part of the German emigration from one point to another, the movement of academics who came over to the United States. And I got fascinated, in an attempt to integrate everything from Plato to modern political activity, with that world view, which had a deep sense of history.

It's always an interesting question what we get out of our education, and I get the sense in reading about you and watching some of your documentaries that theory, and especially the writings of Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Hans Gerth, was especially important in providing a compass for locating your work in journalism; and later in your career, for locating what's important and what is not. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, and then if you think about it for a minute and think about the amount of work that goes into, let's say, a so-called investigative ... I hate using the word, because the word doesn't mean that much anymore. But a story that, let's say, involves real reporting, that tries to get to the root of the problem and looks beyond the appearances in the traditional, philosophical sense, then you're looking for some truth there that you can present, and looking for it without necessarily prejudice. But you do need to have some guide, some way to discern what's important and what's not. And in that sense, my studies back then, my contact with a lot of these people, was very important. Those effects are very practical. I'll give you an example. It was through hanging out with Hans Gerth and reading about bureaucracy and Max Weber that, when I finally went to work for regular, large institution, ABC News to begin with, and then CBS, I realized that the key to my freedom was to make sure that I didn't show up in the bureaucracy. So I never had an office, I never had an extension, and I never appeared in the directory.

Another thing you seemed to have gotten from Gerth is a sense of a criminality in social life, and what are the differences between a legitimate and an illegitimate organization in society's eyes. Is that fair?

Some of that came from him. Not just organizations, but activity. In Lucas, there's an essay on legality and illegality. It's to have a historical social perspective on what organizations are legitimate or not. To read the history of capitalism [is to] understand that capitalism was an illegal organization in the feudal society. So to get a juxtaposed view of that, and then at the same time to understand on a practical level that it's in that world where money and the law meet, that you can often get a really good insight into how things work.

Let's talk a minute about Marcuse. At the time that you studied in San Diego, he had become a very controversial figure because his name was being shouted by demonstrators all over the world. He had thoughts about what a new political theory would be like that could guide action, and one of his foci became the culture and the media, and how we could have something that he called "repressive tolerance" -- apparent freedom but not the access to the information that would really educate and inform a citizenry. Talk about that a minute and what impact that thinking had on you.

I personally went to study with him in '66, so he was just on the cusp of becoming a sort of cult hero of the European left or New Left. So it's interesting that his behavior and what was going on changed as he became more of a public figure.

First of all, the most radical idea that he presented was that: if you don't know why you're doing something, then, why do it? In other words, his greatest criticism of a lot of what went on, including anti-war stuff or political protest, is that people were doing it simply for the action, for the practice, if you will, without understanding where they were going or where they were headed. His perspective was that you had to understand it, and try to understand it in an independent way. I'm not sure that he was that useful once you'd decided to do something.

But what he did understand was that there is this appearance of freedom. I just ran into [this truth] today. I mean, Florida --! I went back to read some more because I was trying to make sense for some students of my own about the recent election. Two candidates running for the highest office in the nation, if not the world. Everyone's saying, "Well, there isn't that much that separates the two of them." So, it's the appearance of choice, right? They have the election. The guy with the most votes loses. The media, which says it's in competition with each other and it's a competitive news organization and so on, reveals that their source of information is exactly the same company, the same source. So, it was the appearance of competition on the air -- the appearance of freedom of the press. Okay. In an election where people did not talk about the substantive issues, neither personally -- both men have admitted that they've had substance abuse problems of different kinds. They never talk about that and issues surrounding it, like the whole drug war. It didn't come up, except until our documentary on the drug wars ran on PBS's "Frontline". The candidates didn't talk about drugs, basically. They didn't even talk about tobacco, which we thought Gore might have raised, at least, because Philip Morris and the tobacco industry were backing Bush. Gore didn't say a word.


So, that's where Marcuse comes in. It is a way to try to understand, or at least put in some perspective, how we have, in this apparent democracy, an appearance of freedom that doesn't have substance.

I found two quotes from a small book, a monograph that Marcuse wrote when he left Brandeis. He says, "Under the rule of monopolistic media, themselves the mirror instruments of economic and political power, a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false, are pre-defined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society." And he goes on to say, "The avenues of inference are closed to the meaning of words and ideas, other than the established one, established by the publicity of the powers that be and verified in their practice."

You know, Marcuse isn't necessarily right.

He is not?

No. I mean, I've flip-flopped back and forth. And what I like about him or when he was alive, especially when I wasn't a student, is that you could sort of have a repartee with him about this theory that he is expounding. He's trying to find a path. And my example is that when ... One of the reasons I stopped studying with him is that there was an attempt to fire him at the university because of the publicity. There was a constant drumbeat in the local media in San Diego to do that. The Governor of California, Reagan, was after him. Shock! Angela Davis was a student of his and that added to it. You know, communist, blah, blah, etc.

So we started a small newspaper in San Diego -- mostly ex-students of his and others. And in the end, although it was quite a struggle, lasting for three years, by simply publishing what was on the public record, in most cases, and learning how to get more, things changed, or appeared to change in San Diego. In other words, there was a shift, a movement, because of information. So the information seemed to me, at that point, on both the practical level, in terms of my own survival -- I didn't wind up in prison, as many people would have predicted in that period of time. And the people we were doing stories about did.

So in Marcuse's sense, we were just the appearance of freedom. I don't know. You know, it did have some leverage.

In quoting Marcuse, I had hoped to suggest that you actually moved beyond his point, in a way. That, in fact, as I look at your work, it seems to me that you have found points of entry to get information out that can be useful for people who want to change things.

Philosophically and legally, the society is based on the idea that we have equal protection under the law. We're a society of laws. And if you take that to its -- if you use that point, then you can take reporting, for instance, that would in many ways be seen as radical or subversive, and it becomes part of the system, by just simply insisting on equal protection or equal application of the law.

So, and in that way, change things?

And that way you'll see reaction. Not all the time, but ... And that way, the established media will also accept the story. You have to know what the rules of the game are in order to get the story in there. The best example I have recently is Marie Brenner, who writes for Vanity Fair. She just did a long, long piece in the current issue.

Yes, I read it.

On the Fanoli brothers, right?

Who are Cuban sugar owners.

Kings or emperors of.

Of sugar in Florida.

Right. And one would not think of such a story being in Vanity Fair. And the way she got it in -- because I was joking with her the other day, and it's true -- is that she quotes the part of the special prosecutor's report on Monica Lewinsky, where Monica Lewinsky says she's performing ... on the president. When the phone rings and he says, "The Fangili brothers just called." Well, it's Fanoli brothers. The next comment is, "What would interrupt the president during a ...?" Right? Well, these super-rich Cuban-Americans guys in Miami.

Right, right. Who were heavy contributors to the political parties.

Right. And then she can use that opening to tell the rest of the story, which becomes a very serious story about exploitation and labor, and power and money, and wealth.

And, by the way, the way the parties don't make a difference, in terms of these issues of migrant workers. She also, we should mention, wrote the Vanity Fair article on tobacco, which became the basis of the screenplay for The Insider.

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